Location Tracking: Why You Should Care (Hint: It’s All About the Aggregation)
Recent update added to the end of this post.
Do you ever read tweets or Facebook walls and say to yourself, “TMI?” Do you ever wonder why people check in to Foursquare? You know, I have developed quite an affection for Twitter as an information source (and it did not begin well). In fact, it has replaced my Google news alerts and Feedburner news feed as my primary source of news and information. That being said, I find myself marveling at how some of the people I “follow” feel the need to tweet their every move:
- Having coffee at Starbucks on name-of-street, in name-of-city.
- Shopping at name-of-mall in name-of-city, in name-of-state.
- Name-of-airline flight number delayed. Stuck in name-of-airport at gate number.
- Off to name-of-city for a 5-day conference.
And I worry about them. Not about their egos (that’s another post) folks, but more about their safety. Maybe it’s because I am a woman (I can hear some of you crying “sexist”), but letting someone know where I am or where I’m not seems like I am inviting trouble. For example: if you know I am not at home, I could be burglarized or if you know where I am, I could be followed. Paranoid? Maybe, but if you’ve ever been stalked or otherwise threatened you know what I am talking about.
Which leads me to Twitter’s geo-location feature and the concept of location tracking in general. Recently, we were all “a-twitter” (yes, pun fully intended) with the Creepy application:
“You can enter a Twitter or Flickr username into the software’s interface, or use the in-built search utility to find users of interest. When you hit the ‘Geolocate Target’ button, Creepy goes off and uses the services’ APIs to download every photo or tweet they’ve ever published, analyzing each for that critical piece of information: the user’s location at the time… When the software finishes its run, it presents you with a map visualizing every location that it found — and that’s when the hairs on the back of your neck go up. While the location of an individual tweet might not reveal much, visualizing a user’s history on a map reveals clusters around their home, their workplace, and the areas they hang out. Everything a stalker could need, in other words.”
Now, I asked Terence (my esteemed co-blogger and CEO of PatternBuilders) to check this out for me as I did not want to download the app myself. He was happy to report that his location information put him somewhere in Eastern Europe (incorrect) but some of his friends’ and colleagues’ locations were far more accurate. For those of you who do not know the Creepy story, its creator, Yiannis Kakava, set out to illustrate how geolocation social networking sites like Foursquare and Twitter can have scary (hence, the Creepy name) privacy implications.
Of course, there is now another web app, If I Die, which plays out a similar scenario. In this case (and it pains me as a marketer to say so), it’s a marketing stunt. Prospects are chosen from Twitter and their feeds are followed. Their whereabouts are then determined from Twitter’s embedded geolocation metadata and that information is used to phone them at that location to recommend that they, or a loved one, try out If I Die. No, I did not make this up. And guess what:
“Oddly, some people — upon being phoned in a bar or restaurant by a total stranger to warn them about sudden death — aren’t amused, much less motivated to start downloading. Rather, says Erez Rubinstein of the Tel Aviv engagement-marketing boutique Twentythree, ‘some targets are a bit concerned.’ Expressing-total-freakedoutedness concerned. Slamming-the-phone-down concerned. In at least one instance, calling-the-police concerned.”
Yep. And these people should be concerned because it was that easy to find them. The digital world we live in is no longer anonymous and location tracking—whether it’s your Twitter feed, your Foursquare check in, the GPS chip in your phone, the RFID tag embedded in your passport, in your EZ Link toll cards, or in the clothing that you buy—may very well be one of the last layers of your “privacy.” For example, a White Paper sponsored by the University of Illinois and the National Science Federation points out that:
- In the U.S., law officials use GPS technology to track criminal suspects and parolees without their knowledge and without meeting the standards of wiretap laws or other laws regulating electronic surveillance because they “do not record conversations.”
- In Singapore, RFIDs are embedded in smartcards and used to pay public train and bus fares. These cards are associated with the user’s national identity number which means that their travel history can be tracked.
- In a Wal-Mart store in Oklahoma, customers who picked up RFID-tagged Gillette razor packaged were photographed without their knowledge.
We have all spent a lot of time talking and reading about GPS location tracking but let’s not forget about all those RFID tags that are used for inventory tracking and to prevent theft. Did you know that those tags can remain operational after you purchase the item?
The most interesting point the White Paper makes (and if you have time, I urge you to read it) is the difference between a loss of privacy and a violation of privacy. For example, if you are walking in a public place and are being tracked by someone with binoculars you have experienced a loss of privacy because you have “no normative right to privacy from location.” But suppose several different people are watching you? One watches you walk through a public park, one watches you get on a bus, one watches you leave the bus, and finally, one watches you enter a building. “If these observers combine their information, you would feel that your privacy has been violated.” Put another way:
“…it is this centralization of aggregated information that violates your moral right to privacy… privacy is valuable because it provides a context for individuals to create and maintain a variety of human relationships. The personal information that you share with a friend or spouse differs from the information that you share with a business colleague… the centralization of personal information is unethical because it eliminates the context that privacy provides.”
To me, location tracking provides the last piece to the Who, What, When, and Where puzzle. As a singular item, it may have very little impact on your life but when it is aggregated with all the other stuff the digital world has on you, it can have scary, creepy, and even frightening implications. Any company or organization that is capturing your location should ask you if it’s okay to collect it, be explicit about how it will be used, and protect it from being hijacked. And as consumers, we all should think long and hard about whether we want to give this information away via Facebook, Twitter, or Foursquare because sometimes TMI is really TMI.
Now, for those of you who would like to have a bit more control over your location, check out this handy cheat sheet on how to disable geolocation functions in specific programs.
In keeping with the topic, it was recently reported that the iPhone keeps record of everywhere you go. Apparently Apple’s iPhone keeps track, in a secret file, of everywhere you go and when you sync it with your computer, the file is copied. Here’s what the file contains: the latitude and longitude of the phone’s coordinates as well as a timestamp. Since this file is not encrypted anyone who has possession of your phone or computer will also have a detailed picture of where you have been. According to the data scientists that made this discover, Pete Warden and Alasdair Allan:
“Warden and Allan point out that the file is moved onto new devices when an old one is replaced: ‘Apple might have new features in mind that require a history of your location, but that’s our speculation. The fact that [the file] is transferred across [to a new iPhone or iPad] when you migrate is evidence that the data-gathering isn’t accidental.’ But they said it does not seem to be transmitted to Apple itself.”
Thankfully for all iPhone users out there, Warden and Allen have set up a web page to tell you more about what is being tracked, how it is being tracked, as well as what you can do to protect yourself.